Rev Professor W Gordon Campbell
Pierre Berthoud, President of the Board, Professor Emeritus, Faculté Jean Calvin, Aix–en–Provence, FranceView all articles
The current pandemic remains a challenge for faith, discipleship and theology. As we continue to reflect, as Reformed Christians, on the new and developing context that it provides for both the Church’s mission and for our discipleship, a basic question remains “what does the Bible say?” By way of an answer, and as a welcome stimulus to further thought and prayer, we are pleased to host the following contribution from Pierre Berthoud, my friend and former colleague - and current President - in the John Calvin Seminary in Aix-en-Provence.
In the day of adversity, consider!
“In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider/look (heb.). God has made the one as well as the other in such a way that no one can find out what is to happen next.” Ecclesiastes 7:14.
The temptation to underestimate evil
Admittedly, we have all underestimated the frightening efficiency and the extremely rapid spread of the coronavirus within the populations of the world, in particular in the West, in Europe and in France. Our scientific experts as well as our health and political authorities have been to a large degree complacent in taking belated action against the epidemic and by not taking sufficiently into account the experience of some of the Asian democracies where authorities and populations were well prepared and equipped to face such a plague.
However, in a world where evil is a dynamic force, government must recognize its devastating thrust. Without that acknowledgement of the virus-like ability of evil to creep maliciously into the heart of the city, government will never be prepared to confront it. By taking adequate measures to identify and to face up to it, leaders demonstrate that they really take to their heart the protection and the well-being of the people for whom they are responsible.
The work of the Creator is undoubtedly good, but since the emergence of sin in the world at the dawn of history, human beings and the whole of creation as well as civilizations, however accomplished they may become, live under the shadow of death. To ignore this fact is to call down upon us times of disenchantment, even tragic and bitter times! In the passage mentioned above the teacher of wisdom clearly urges us to be happy in the day of prosperity, but he also invites us to carefully consider the days of adversity that disrupts our lives.
Undoubtedly, immersed as we are in a society that extols the well-being of the body, material prosperity and peace at all cost, we have been shaken to the very depth of our beings by the extent and the magnitude of the evil that, like a tsunami, has spread so devastatingly and overwhelmed more than half of the world population! The whole of our professional, economic, political, cultural, and sports activities have been placed on standby mode and even come to a halt. In one word, the foundations of our world and life view and of our civilization with its values, certainties and lifestyle are faltering. Our bearings and successes seem suddenly very fragile. What has happened, for instance, during this time of confinement, to our freedom of movement and travel, not to mention our freedom of enterprise? Has man, the measure of all things, the ultimate reference point, after all built the mansion of our civilization on sand?
The point is not to underestimate our achievements, the feats and the conquests of modern times, but to give them their proper place, where they help us to better fulfill our human mandate and our calling to community. For our enterprises, however remarkable or ingenious they may be, bear the marks of our brokenness and can only fail when we seek to build a promethean utopia! Since the Tower of Babel, human history is littered with the corpses of such chimeras.
What stance should we then adopt with regards to this sudden and major crisis that has taken such a magnitude? Ecclesiastes gives us a few leads to enlighten our path.
First of all he reminds us that God is sovereign and that nothing escapes his ultimate will. This of course doesn’t mean that we are not responsible for the way in which we manage creation and govern the city, especially when we go through a devastating storm and are threatened by a severe upheaval, but that the Lord presides over the destiny of our world and of our lives. We do not surrender to fate nor yield to the whims of chance, for God reigns and that makes all the difference! Even when we are under the impression that the Lord is silent, he is present and he speaks to us but, as Elihu, the young wise man of the Book of Job, says, we are not aware of it and do not take heed! God meets us in the intimacy of our beings and reveals himself to us and instructs us by dreams, visions and even in the midst of acute sufferings (Job 33.14-19). Such is the work of the Spirit who moves mysteriously in the depth of our hearts in unison with the written and Incarnate wisdom of our heavenly Father.
Secondly, and as a consequence of what has just been said, Qohelet invites us to consider, to pay attention and to ponder rather than to flee from reality or to minimize it, to offer ready-made solutions or to hide behind the knowledge of experts. To understand or discern what is happening, in the light of the divine word, is vital when we are confronted with such dramatic and uncertain circumstances. Indeed, within the Christian worldview, discernment enlightens and nourishes the integrity, the compassion and the hope of the believer. When he prayed for the Philippians, Paul asked God that their “love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that they may approve all that is excellent.” (Ph. 1: 9, 10). In a world of communication, discernment is the antidote par excellenceto untruth, misinformation and dissimulation. Itis“the power to tell the good from the bad, the genuine from the counterfeit, and to prefer the good and the genuine to the bad and the counterfeit”. In other words, discernment combines wisdom with significant practical choices; a wisdom inviting us and enabling us to evaluate and to appreciate the allegations of truth while prompting us to understand that we are part of a real and broken world where the power of evil is at work. As we understand the reality of our world, we can all the more live and act accordingly in the light of God’s wisdom. Discernment urges us to search for truth regardless of its source because it alone enables us to resist evils and scourges and to slow down their progression. But, beware! Our apprehension of truth, however real it may be, is never exhaustive. Only our ultimate Vis-à-vis, the fountain of all wisdom in whom we trust, holds this prerogative!
Some paths of reflection
Finally, Ecclesiastes invites us to cast a lucid and kindly gaze on the major crisis of civilization we are experiencing, as we witness the rapid and disconcerting collapse of our system of values and achievements that seemed so well established, permanent and meaningful. With this in mind I would like to share with you some thoughts as we, in France, anticipate with some anxiety the end of two months of confinement:
The time has come for us to redefine the foundations of our faith and our priorities. In addition to our personal relationship with the Lord, however important it may be, are we ready to take part in the life and affairs of the city in response to the cultural mandate the Lord gave us in creation? Admittedly, we are not of the world, but we are in the world. Our faith is not limited to the private sphere of our lives because the Word of God also sheds light on its public sphere. It is our duty to face the challenges of our time and to understand how divine wisdom enlightens them, taking as examples Joseph in Egypt, Daniel in Babylon, Esther in Persia and the early Church within the Roman Empire. It is easy to get caught up in the comfort of our well-being to the detriment of a thoughtful examination of our culture, of a lifestyle and of an action that might even trigger opposition. Recently I saw again the movie “Les Misérables” by Tom Hooper, based on the novel of Victor Hugo, where God is clearly present in the life of the city. As I reflected on the movie and the present epidemic, I was struck, some 200 years later (at least in France), by the quasi absence of a Christian voice on the television programs and radio stations dealing with this major crisis! God, our Churches, the Christian critical appraisal of the situation and testimony have become largely insignificant in our ultramodern society. Secularization having restricted Christians to the private sphere, will it now confine them to clandestinity?
The widespread public upsurge of creative imagination and generosity as demonstrated towards the population, particularly towards the victims of the epidemic, to the elderly people, to the weakest and to the underprivileged, represent one of the most significant features of this national trial. A similar gesture of solidarity was expressed in the spring of 2019 when fire seriously damaged Notre-Dame de Paris. Such expressions of creative liberality are traces of common grace and the lingering footprints the waning Christian faith has left on our civil societies. As Luc Ferry, a contemporary agnostic French philosopher maintains, one of the major contributions of the Christian faith has been to enhance the love of one’s neighbor, a mirror image of the Creator’s love for his creatures. Consciously or unconsciously, our contemporaries are still inspired by this long-standing cultural heritage. It is a possible and promising meeting point in our desire to share the Gospel with our peers.
Such a generosity and creativity offer a striking contrast with the lack of preparation and the wavering of the political and public health authorities of our country, as well the petty-squabbling within the advisory scientific council and among the infectious disease specialists. Apart from a few exceptions their rhetoric and actions reveal grey areas that generate many unanswered questions…! However this should not prevent us from praying for our authorities as they seek to manage this major humanitarian and economic crisis, where everything seems to slip between their fingers. As they face such tough issues, they also need wisdom and discernment!
The sudden appearance of calamities and hardships is often a salutary wake-up call and triggers a vital soul-searching process. In the very midst of such trials and sufferings, that have no apparent or obvious value in and of themselves, the Lord is at work as he speaks to us to bring us closer to himself. He presses us, we who are living in the shadow of death, to a radical change of mind, to become conscious of and acknowledge our fragility, our misery, to find again the path to humility, of life and of hope. Indeed as St Augustine says so well, “… you (God) have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you”. This particular work of the Lord brings to mind the tragedy of the exile the people of Judah experienced. After having recalled, through the prophetic word of Jeremiah the disaster that the unfaithful and idolatrous people had brought upon themselves, the Lord declares his firm intention to restore his covenant, to gather his people and to have them remain securely in their homeland: “I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will assuredly plant them in this land with all my heart and all my soul” (Jeremiah 32:41, NIV).
The end of the tunnel
Such deeply moving love and grace, flowing out of the very heart of God, have been fully revealed in Jesus-Christ, in his life, death on the cross and glorious resurrection. The Son of God is henceforth our mediator and our intercessor with the Father. The Spirit of wisdom while speaking to our hearts convinces us of the loving kindness of our Lord. Yes, as Ecclesiastes has said so well, the Lord has wrapped up our future in mystery, but we are not troubled nor without hope, for it is hidden in God, in his love, stronger than any plague, than even death itself. Let us never forget, the goodness and the faithfulness of the Lord move faster and better than the coronavirus. The little and bright light at the end of the tunnel that kindles our hope is not a mirage!
President of the Board
Faculté Jean Calvin
 The Hebrew name of Ecclesiastes
 Often attributed to Samuel Johnson, the famous 18thCentury English writer, essayist and moralist, this quotation was in fact written by C. G. Osgood as a part of a 1917 preface to James Boswells “Life of Samuel Johnson” (Samuel Johnson’s autobiography).
 Since the writing of these thoughts the French Constitutional court ruled that the government must lift a blanket ban on meetings at places of worship imposed as part of the measures to combat the coronavirus.
 Confessions, Book I, i (I). Translation by Henry Chadwick